(First chapter of this space-opera-in-progress is HERE.)
European Stellar Union Frontier
April 27th, 2400 AD, Terra Standard
Three-hundred-and-twenty kilometers above the blue and green world of Adalberto an ESU Spacefleet SSL-14 Spiderwasp Dropship rang to the vibrant alto of Lieutenant-Major Guenièvre Kozietulski as she sang “Monde Angoissé, Réjouis-Toi” at the top of her lungs, rejoicing at the coming dawn in tones thick with longing. The power-armored squad under her command might have found it annoying in the small space of the cargo bay, but they were long used to it. It helped that she had a decent voice and good pitch.
It also helped that they knew she sang most when her heart was hurting.
The squad, ten stellars total, made up Rapier team, the ESU Spacefleet’s special response team for Ankadian invasions. Like any special forces unit their job was to accomplish specific, nearly impossible objectives quickly and precisely. Unlike most special forces, the team really only existed because of Jen, though she would have been very uncomfortable to hear it put that way.
Stellars, the marines of space, were far better trained and educated than the standard soldiers of any ground-based force, so much so that enlisted stellars commonly joked that learning their job was worth at least a graduate degree. Three-hundred years before, during the Solar Colony wars, when the media had suggested the term “space marine” for their job, the budding stellars had said they were better than marines and made up their own name.
After facing them in space and coming back home in defeat, the marines of Earth had agreed.
Marines were trained for land and sea, which had a few things in common, like gravity and the fact that they were both fairly gentle in how hard they tried to kill a person. Stellars were trained for land and space, two very different environments, one of which had it out for just about every living thing in existence. Marines were trained for combat and how to help out on an oceanic ship. Stellars were trained for combat and how to be full crew on a space ship. The second part of that was considered at least a two-year technical degree in most places, and the first part was already demonstrably harder than any kind of combat on the ground.
It was a saying in Stellar Corps that space had no room for stupid people, and any number of ways of enforcing that rule. In line with that, the typical stellar ranked at least above the 86th percentile for intelligence.
Rapier team, handpicked for the hardest jobs the ESU could find, was the cream of that crop, and Jen Kozietulski was the cream of that cream.
It was a distinction she strenuously objected to if anyone brought it up, maintaining that everything that had brought her where she was consisted of lended strength.
After spending several years with her, watching how she lived, most of the members of Rapier team tended to believe her.
Those who didn’t know her, however, usually just found her behavior strange.
“This is the pilot speaking,” said a deep male voice in German-accented English over the intercom. “If you are finished with your recital, we will be dropping in twenty minutes. Final checks are highly recommended.”
Jen cut her singing short and snapped the opaque, slope-armored visor of her helmet shut, locking herself in blackness. Within five seconds her armor finished software and connection checks and took over the job of seeing from her nervous system. The inside of the dropship reappeared for her with startling clarity.
Closing the helmet also brought up internal comms, putting her into a secure network with the rest of her team.
“Pilot’s a jerk,” Lieutenant Katherine Rademaker said. “Everyone on the Renaud knows it.”
“Copilot’s not,” Corporal Michel Guerin said.
“The major doesn’t wanna know, Mitch,” Kate said.
“We just had coffee! Mitzi is a good girl!”
“A likely story,” Sublieutenant Raul Zini cut in. “Girls don’t stay good around you.”
“I stay good around him just fine,” Corporal Tereza Araujo said.
“You just don’t like guys, Tee,” Master Sergeant Gustav Armbruster replied.
“Well, yeah. You all smell bad.”
“A real mensch is supposed to smell bad.”
“Final checks, stellars,” Jen said with her soft New Paris French accent.
At her voice the chatter quieted and soldiers ran through the full system checks for their armor and all attached equipment. Jen made sure her own armor had full oxygen in all its reserve tanks, that the recycler was running at 100%, that power storage was topped off and that power generation from her microfusion reactor could hit peak output with no problems. Lastly she tested the plasma shield, watching the bloom and pop as each of the exposed shield generators formed a small test bubble.
Once she knew her armor was ready she went through the weapons, running full systems checks on the missile launcher on her left shoulder, the polariton laser-cannon on her right, the giant 6 millimeter rail-rifle in her hands and the 30 millimeter collapsible multi-launcher limpeted to her lower back. She also checked pistol, spare pistol, extra ammo, grenades and scouting drones.
When she was certain everything else was in order she pulled out an Ankadian sonic-dagger as long as her forearm and inspected the replaceable fullerene edge. After ensuring there were no nicks in the monomolecular edge and testing the power, she turned it to the side and pondered a field filled with galloping horses, rippling streams, spreading oaks, birds on the wing and a post-and-beam farmhouse, with the projects of Nouveau Paris off to one side and her father carrying her childhood self out of them, all under the twin moons and burning sun of the ESU core colony of New Paris.
She flipped the dagger to look at the other side and now saw three battles, New Milan, New Lyon and New Berlin, complete with cities, tanks, soldiers, civilians, starships and explosions, and herself in armor under them all, weeping for the mounded slain of both forces while holding upright the ESU battle flag with one hand and crushing a torn Ankadian Imperial flag in the other. On both sides of the dagger, sharp, small words written in Hakat, the traditional language of the Ankadarul, wrapped around the images, describing what was shown, when it happened and who she was. Near the hilt of the blade words in Doga, the modern language of the Ankadian Empire, gave her full name, known parentage, planet of origin, and other information important for identification.
In short, the blade carried all the details of her life, save the only one that mattered, picked out in exquisitely carved iridium and sealed under diamond.
In the iridium butt of the dagger she had lasered a cross to serve as the foundation for everything else. She studied it for a long moment, remembering, thanking, resting, until she was interrupted.
“Why are we fighting them again?” Kate asked on a private channel. “I thought we had a peace treaty.”
Jen put the dagger away and turned her head to look at her second-in-command. She could have looked without turning, but Siegmund-class heavy powered armor was built to accommodate such unnecessary gestures.
Kate looked back at her, completely hidden within a black fullerene shell over ten centimeters thick in most places. Jen knew the look she’d have, though.
Tired. Worn. Longing for the fighting to be over.
“I told you, Kat, we have a treaty that covers all our established colonies. Adalberto is new, started after the treaty. In the minds of the warlords, that means it’s not covered.”
“But why did they come? What’s here worth them fighting over? There’s nothing but a few colonists and some horses.”
“Gloire. Conquest. They want the fight, not the planet.”
“Seriously? They’re just here to get shot at?”
“Shira says the warlords are testing us. Testing her. Seeing how much they can get away with and how hard we come down on them.”
“So she told you? She told you why?”
Jen shifted uncomfortably. “She didn’t order this, Kat.”
“She’s their empress! If she’s not behind it then she should order them not to come!”
Jen closed her eyes, remembered the shame on the little Ankadian empress’ face when Jen had said just that. How the girl, she really was just a girl, had blushed deeply under her dusky skin, laid her long ears out to the side and refused to look into the camera for several minutes after admitting that she didn’t want to start another civil war.
“She’s Kavan Durr, Foremost Lord, first among equals, and she’s scared that those equals might turn on her. And it shames her.”
“Maybe she needs to grow up, then. People are dying, Koz!”
“They already tried to kill her once, Kat. From what I understand, twenty million of her people died during that little war. Some of them did succeed in killing her father a decade before that.”
Kate quieted at that.
“She’s a frightened nineteen-year-old looking at tens-of-billions of lives that all hang on her decisions. Keeping the warlords happy by not reining them in while they take advantage of a loophole in her treaty looks to her like an easy way of keeping all those lives in her empire safe. Even if it’s a wrong way. What Shira needs is faith that the God who put her on the throne will keep her on it.”
“What makes you think think he put her there?” Kate said. “I can’t see how he has anything to do with the Ankadians. I wish he’d just tear their whole empire down.”
“Should he do that before or after he reduces the ESU to a rubble pile for its sins?”
A long moment of silence stretched between them.
“I hate it how you’re always right,” Kate finally said.
“No I’m not. And I know where you’re coming from, Kat. I’ve lost people too. A lot of people. It has taken a lot of prayer, a lot of trust and many many hours meditating on the Cross for me to find enough mercy to forgive. Jesus is the only reason I can see a desperate young woman when I look at Shira and not the monster who ordered the invasion of New Berlin.”
“Good to know you’re still human, Koz.”
Jen grabbed one of Kate’s pauldrons and gave her a shake.
“Love will take you places hate can’t imagine, mon soeurette.”
Kate mumbled a reply.
“Shira gave me something for the team. I think it will help you where she’s concerned.” Jen switched to the team channel and put the whole network into classified communication mode, ending all backup recording. “Attention Rapier, we are two minutes to drop. We’ve already been over the plan fifty times, so I won’t bore you with it again. However, I do have one more thing to show you. Be aware, this intel is classified by me. You make copies, you tell anyone you saw it, I kill you and feed you to my father’s pigs. Understood?”
There was a chorus of affirmatives.
“Super. I will show you once, then delete my own copy. I repeat, this message does not exist.” She queued up a classified recording and played it on the network.
A window popped up in front of each team member’s face. Several of them gasped as they saw the beautiful young Dankaran woman looking out at them. All of them had seen Empress Shiralenn Beregtola ArdAnkadia before, usually dressed in the same red, gold and steel formal robes as now and wearing the same open-faced steel helm that the Ankadians called a crown, but the view was usually zoomed out a little further and her face never had the thoroughly informal look that it did now.
“Rapier team,” she began, fixing them with a cold, disconcerting gaze made more so by the fact that one eye was gold and one green, “You know who I am. As Kavan Durr Beregtola, I officially have no comment on the present actions of Rakash Durr ArKalak, save this, ‘May he bring honor to the Empire.’
She paused, holding their gazes for a moment.
She hung that ‘however’ in the air while she reached up and took off her helm, exposing dark brown hair braided and bound up into a breathtakingly intricate arrangement. She set the helmet to the side, pulled out several hairpins made of brilliant white wood, and let the long braids fall down onto her shoulders. Then she shook the braids back behind herself, pulled a naked double-edged sword from somewhere off screen and laid it across her lap. She looked the sword over for a moment and ran a hand along the flat of it, feeling the steel with her palm and fingertips.
When she looked up at the camera again there was fire in her eyes. She took her ‘however’ and continued.
“As Shiralenn ArdAnkadia, both Kai’s Preparer and a woman who loves her people with all her heart, I have something completely different to say.”
She leaned forward and the gold lettering on the sword caught the light and burned with the same intensity as her eyes.
“Rapier team, Rakash Durr ArKalak has disrespected my will as Kavan Durr in front of the whole Empire by ignoring my request for peace, has stained the honor of the entire body of the Ankadarul by going back on the spirit of our word, and has defamed the name of Kai himself by ignoring my ruling as Kaiag Rokoru that your nation is not under our mandate of preparation. Therefore,” she bared her pronounced canines and pinned her long ears back against her head, “I personally request that you find that idiot and crush him! If that means you must kill him, then you will have my thanks when you do so. That said, if you can somehow send him back alive, with his broken blade in his hands, then I promise you I will make an example of him that the other warlords will never forget!”
By the end of her request her gaze could have set trees on fire. When she stopped she sat back up, relaxed her expression and was once more calm and collected, though now her expression was warmer than at first. She continued,
“Regardless of the course you choose, you go to this battle with my blessing on your actions. I and the most trusted members of my household will be praying for your safety and victory until I receive word of your success. May Kai watch over you with mercy, brave warriors.”
The message ended and Jen deleted it with a full data wipe. None of her team members said anything for a long ten count.
Gustav finally broke the silence with his heavy german voice.
“That is a very angry woman.”
Everyone else agreed.
“Wow,” Kate said. “You were right, Koz. I think I like her a lot more now.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Adalberto, third planet from the yellow giant Ybarra, was a rocky world slightly smaller than Earth but a little more dense. From space it looked almost exactly the same, green, brown and blue capped with white and swirled with clouds, only varying in the shape of its continents. From ground level the similarity was even more surprising, as most of Adalberto was covered with Earth native plants such as American prairie grass and oak trees. The forests were all young growth, two hundred years old at most, but they were definitely Terran forests, complete with deer and squirrels and wolves.
It had already been that way when the ESU Exploration Corps had discovered it in 2361. Adalberto was what was commonly known as an Ahlstrom-formed planet, originally a borderline habitable world located by Sylvi Ahlstrom’s automated scouts during the first decade of darkspace travel and issued an adaptive, fully automated terraforming unit during the second decade. The location of all such worlds had been lost during the AI crisis and the associated data purge, leaving the terraformers to merrily toil away at transforming their assigned planets for several hundred years, ignorant of new laws against AI’s and self replicating machines.
Initial surveys after the ESU rediscovery of the planet had found remnants of a unique ecosystem on a few remote islands, but 37 years of abandonment during the Ankadian Wars had allowed the work of the Ahlstrombots to finalize. By the time humans returned to begin colonizing the world was irrevocably a copy of Earth, with the bots themselves already shut down and all samples of native life discarded and long dead.
Though xenobiologists had once again been horrified by the devastating efficiency of Sylvi Ahlstrom’s creations, the ESU Colonial Bureau had been delighted with another readymade core world. Free of the looming threat of Ankadian invasion they had arranged for thousands and then millions of new colonists to move into the prepared sites.
Within two years, the new colony of Adalberto, named for Admiral Adalberto Ybarra, a hero from the early days of the war, was up and running with twenty million colonists, all well fed and clothed from Ahlstrombot-constructed farms and factories.
Then Rakash Durr ArKalak, an influential Ankadian warlord, had heard of an ESU colony founded in the frontier zone after the treaty between the Ankadian Imperium and the ESU, and with the help of several other warlords he set out to capture it, people and all, to see if the ESU could once more be drawn into a conflict rich with slaves and land and glory.
The first landers had arrived in the night, sneaking past the thin patrols and light surveillance and hiding in the oceans until they could find natural cave systems to set up in and begin what the Ankadians were famous for: underground warfare. For two months after that, fifty-thousand ArKalak-allied soldiers drilled through the crust under the primary colony bases, setting up shielded tunnel networks that would allow them to strike quickly and then retreat without detection. They made camps for holding prisoners, bays for vehicles and repair shops, and vertical tunnels for planetary defense lasers.
Shortly after ArKalak had himself joined the invasion team, but a month before he had planned to start the main push, a group of hunters had found a fox hiding in a ventilation shaft for one of the tunnel networks and realized the shaft was neither natural nor made by the decade-deactivated Ahlstrombots. Two-weeks later ESU Spacefleet SSEAL Teams confirmed that the ventilation shaft was part of a network filled with Ankadian soldiers and also gave themselves away while doing so.
Both sides had responded immediately, ArKalak firing off his invasion early and the ESU routing every available ship and ground force to Adalberto. The ESU won the charge, but without serious planetary defenses there was no way to keep the warlords’ combined fleets from blowing through and bringing in fresh troops to fill the tunnels until there would be no hope of holding the planet and keeping the colonists safe without an all-out counter-invasion that would take years to run.
The only hope for a quick resolution was for the ESU to send in a team to take out ArKalak himself before his reinforcements came.
Looking out at the dense, dark forests surrounding the largest entrance to ArKalak’s command center, Dangar Torren Dertontag NurMagtel prayed for the sake of himself and his five ten-squads of dels that any team capable of such a bold move was far away from Adalberto. In the early years of the war the Ankadians had regularly smashed the ESU, taking whole systems from them at a terrifying rate. That had slowed down some as the years went by, but the performance from ESU soldiers and crewmen had still been so low that the Ankadians disdained them.
However, after the turnarounds at New Milan and New Lyon, the ESU military had finally grown a backbone. New Berlin, the warlords’ grand attempt to take down the ESU’s richest core world, had failed miserably, despite all the preparation, and several retaken systems in the first month following that failure had forced the Empire to offer a peace.
Now Rakash Durr ArKalak was trying to start all of that again, as if he might somehow replicate the victories of forty years before and add a whole ESU colony to his territories, despite the new resolve of the ESU military.
Torren worried that his Rakash Durr was still living in the glory days of his youth, when he had helped his father take New Gothenburg in a one-month push during the war’s second year. Now sixty, ArKalak was entering the age prone to such nostalgia. In this case, it was something that could cost a great many Ankadarul their lives.
Torren looked at the trees again, switching the spectrum in his helmet to ultraviolet, then to infrared. All around him his men were doing the same, passively scanning for scouts from their shielded surveillance blinds.
A twig crunched and Torren snapped his head around, zooming in on the spot with a thought.
Nothing showed where he was certain he had heard the sound. Just a big tree surrounded by leaves and some fallen branches. The database in his powered armor identified it as a Terran “red oak”.
He scanned the area around the oak, flipping through all available spectra, but didn’t see anything.
It was probably nothing.
He warned his men and activated a lidar scan on the ground around the base of the big tree just to be sure. A second later the computer showed him the broken stick and a few groundcover plants that were flatter than those surrounding them.
“Gar NurParack,” Torren commed to his immediate commander, “I may have a scout. Requesting dogs.”
“Request acknowledged, Dangar. Kendel DanVarrel will be up with the Bergresh in seventy ticks.”
While Torren waited for the hound-handler to arrive he passed the word to his dels to ready their weapons and conduct renewed scans of their surroundings in case there was more than one scout. While standard Ankadian stealth technology was more than sufficient for hiding soldiers and ground vehicles from satellites and ships in orbit, ESU stealth was at a whole other level. That stealth was one of the reasons the Ankadians’ initial advance had slowed down after the first five years, as that was when the ESU had acquired the new technology by purchasing it from the FGP. It had taken a whole decade for Imperial scientists to develop scanners and software sufficient to put Ankadian troops back on an even technological footing.
The only reason the advance hadn’t stopped completely was because the Ankadians had their dogs.
Torren saw the dog handler appear on his tactical display and glanced at the two hounds, invisible to naked eyes but easily highlighted by the systems in his armor. Genetically engineered, cybernetically enhanced and enclosed in their own heavy powered armor, the Bergresh Rakash Aroun were far removed from their distant ancestors, the Zdar Aroun of old. Despite that, they still had the same lanky, hip-high build and graceful carriage as their “dragon hound” forebearers.
Without their armor they were virtually unshakeable and deadly to any human in less than full powered armor. With their armor they were almost unstoppable. Torren had heard stories of Mrin Purkaath riders escaping Bergresh trackers, but watching the hounds himself he even doubted those.
As soon as they were out of the tunnel they spread out and sniffed the air through ports in their sharp helmets. One immediately went to a pointing stance directed at the big oak, verifying the presence of a scout. The other vanished into the forest to circle around behind the oak for a pincer strike.
Torren readied his rail-rifle and shoulder cannon for the moment the scout bolted.
“One scout, confirmed,” the hound handler said on the general comm as a red icon appeared on the tactical plot representing the ESU scout. “Elu has eyes on him. Hounds find no others.”
“Close for strike,” Torren commed. “All dels, ready weapons for supporting fire. Mind the hounds.”
Torren watched his tactical plot as the icons for the two dogs closed on the icon for the scout. When they were just about to reach the scout Torren shifted his eyes to the tree and waited.
Suddenly a faint distortion leapt out from behind the oak and ran for the deep woods.
“Take him down.”
The woods exploded.
Men and hounds screamed into their comms as rockets, hypervelocity rounds and beams of light lanced down out of the sky. Half the network went dead in an instant and the rest devolved into chaos as every del tried to figure out where the fire was coming from.
“Stealth compromised!” Torren barked. “Raise shields and scatter!”
The forest shook again as plasma bubbles boomed into existence around powered armor. Ankadian dels, now thoroughly visible in their faintly glowing bubbles, abandoned their hiding places and took evasive maneuvers as they searched the sky for their attackers. Computer tracking followed laser blasts back to eleven blurs drifting down from a kilometer above. Before any of the Ankadians could lock on the blurs bloomed their own glowing bubbles and turned into ESU stellars in heavy powered armor.
The stellars jinked and continued to fire as they fell, blowing through shields and holing armor with ferocious effectiveness. A few dels finally got locks and the triple-whipcracks of Ankadian rail-rifles responded to the distinct thunder of ESU polariton pulses and high-caliber sniping rails.
Torren launched a salvo of missiles which blew up halfway between himself and his target, then zoomed in with the scope on his rail-rifle to take a shot.
He froze when he saw the three gold galaxies glittering on the gorget of his enemy’s armor. Only one ESU stellar had three awardings of the Galaxy of Bravery.
And he was looking up the barrel of her gun.
“ArKalak, you fool,” Torren whispered.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Jen slipped the dangar’s battle dagger from its sheath on his hip and checked the name on it. Torren NurMagtel. A lower-class surname. From the images on the dagger he had come from an iron-balloon type space colony in the Ferlak system, one of three major Ankadian colonies controlled by the ArKalak family. His father had been a miner, his mother a housemaker and maintenance tech. He had three brothers.
He was the first to become a soldier, possibly the first in his family line.
His parents had supported the choice, though. They’d paid for the dagger.
Jen squeezed the hilt of the dagger in her powered fist and hung her head in exhaustion. A few tears rolled down her face inside her helmet.
“Papa, s’il vous plaît ayez pitié de la famille de cet homme.”
She carried the dagger to the drop kit and set it with five others in the team’s resupply locker. She sighed, then grabbed a missile pack to refill her shoulder launcher, two full magazines for her rail-rifle and a full charge cell for her polariton cannon.
She slotted everything in then pinged the scout on the local comm channel.
“Lieutenant-Major?” he said.
“I’ve got two full companies inbound on this site in sixty seconds, plus two more for each of the spare tunnels. Give me a quick rundown on what you’ve learned since your last transmission.”
“Sir, it’s all in the data packet I sent you, sir.”
“I’ll check that in a moment. I want to hear it from you first. What are the most important details?”
“Yes sir. Umm. They’ve cycled out the guards twice since my last report. One new team. That brings the minimum to at least two hundred ground pounders down there. They also brought two squads of vakallarn up so the horses could get some fresh air. Haven’t seen any purkaath, and no Mrin, so it’s not likely there will be any, but I can’t say that for sure. I haven’t seen anything belowground.”
“Great, vaks,” Michel said. “I hate vaks.”
“Nothing that really stood out. Just that they’ve got less of the weird stuff than I saw in the past.”
“This group is here without Imperial support,” Jen said. “That means no Mrin, no Neralenians and no Imperial Foresters.”
“Huh. I didn’t know that, sir.”
“That isn’t classified information, so feel free to share it. Hannes, you got anything yet?”
Sergeant Hannes Langbroek, Rapier team’s computer warfare specialist, disconnected a data line from one of the fallen Ankadian armors and nodded.
“Got some comm logs, map data and sensor logs off three of the suits. Rest got scragged by the security systems. Techs on the Renaud should have it analyzed and shipped back to us in two minutes.”
“Tres bien.” Jen looked up and scanned the sky for the heavy dropships carrying her reinforcements.
“This is Momma Bear to Rapier team. Drop in twenty seconds. Clear the anthill.”
“This is Diva. Rapier team acknowledges. Clear the area, Rapier!”
Rapier team moved to the edges of the clearing they’d opened up moments after finishing off the Ankadians. While Jen waited for the landing she reviewed the scout’s data. It contained nothing extra.
She closed the file and looked up as the giant 100 meter dropship floated down on internal Tzu drives and came to a hover five meters above the clearing. Bay doors opened in its belly and squad after squad of stellars in heavy powered armor jumped down, followed by a trio of Audax-class spider mechs and one Triceratops-class main battle tank that descended on gravity assist.
Jen twitched at the sight of the mechs. She always thought they looked far too much like the real thing, complete with eight legs and a giant set of fang-like sonic blades up front that could pierce through fullerene armor with ease. They were the best type of armored support for caves, but she still preferred not to look at them.
The lieutenants commanding the two companies jogged up to Jen and saluted.
“Lieutenant-Major Kozietulski, it’s an honor to finally meet you,” one said.
Jen returned their salutes.
“Lieutenant Holguin, Lieutenant Nicosia, I’m sorry the Renaud didn’t get here sooner. I would have liked time to do some sim runs together before plunging into these caves.”
“Same here,” Lieutenant Holguin said, “but command doesn’t want to give this guy time to move.”
“Best to send them home quick. I have an intel packet arriving in about a minute that should give us maps on the tunnels and some info on force levels and deployment. Both of you have your men run one more check on their equipment and then we’ll look the packet over the moment it gets here.”
“Roger that,” the lieutenants said.
Jen put her own team through checks as well. Running another full exam on their equipment was tedious, but it was much better than finding a missile pack had loaded wrong and wouldn’t fire when needed.
Finally the data packet arrived. It came with a note that Warlord ArKalak had been observed in the base. Jen shot the packet out across the tactical network and pulled all the gathered stellars into a VR briefing after setting one squad and the tank to guard the cave exit.
“Alright, stellars, it’s confirmed. ArKalak is here. We pull this mission off and bring him in, this invasion crumbles.”
Several soldiers responded with shouts of “Star Corps!”
Jen smiled at them as she opened the data packet into a full 3d view of the tunnel down, complete with side tunnels the Ankadians had cut for setting ambushes. An auxiliary file listed estimated Ankadian forces based on what the del’s armor sensors had recorded. Jen took the stellars through all that info in a quick once-through, then lead them down the tunnel view a second time, laying out how she expected the Ankadians to employ what they had.
After answering a few questions she gave each squad their general orders, called for a quick prayer, and put in a call to the ESUS scout-class command carrier Stefan Renaud.
“Command, this is Diva. Alpha team is ready for second phase. Are the other teams in position?”
“Diva, this is Command. Teams Beta and Gamma confirm ready status. You are clear for second phase start.”
“Acknowledged, Command. Starting second phase now. All teams are go. Repeat. All teams are go.”
The Renaud confirmed Jen’s order and rebroadcast it to the other stellar teams which weren’t within line of sight. Jen returned her attention to her own troops.
“Alright, stellars, we are mission go. Set plasma shields to max power, full surround, and missile intercept to full. Rapier team has point. All other squads follow in the order I gave you. Mechs, you have the roof, armor, follow Rapier. Star Corps!”
Jen was buffeted by thunder as over two-hundred suits of powered armor, three mechs and a tank fired up their plasma shields simultaneously and the main comm channel resounded with a unified shout of “Star Corps!” She powered her own shield and started into the 6-meter-wide mouth of the cave, Rapier team close behind.
As they descended into darkness only the faint glow of their plasma shields gave any light. Jen sensed motion above and glanced up to see one of the spider mechs silently keeping pace while hanging upside down from the roof.
She twitched again. It made it worse that they even moved like the real thing.
The stolen map listed the command caves as roughly three hundred meters down, deep enough that scanning from space could not see them. The cave complex consisted of a square, 300-meter wide main bay for exercises, vehicles and weapons, a square 100-meter supply warehouse for munitions, food and fuel, a long 200 by 100 meter barracks section with bunks, mess, showers and stables, and a round 50-meter command section with a full operations room linked to other bases by subterranean comm lasers. Most of it looked like it had been carved out of a pre-existing volcanic cave system, with many natural formations still in place.
ArKalak would be in the main bay or the command section, surrounded by his command cadre and personal guards, all in Ankadian heavy powered armor. Filling the rest of the bay would be as much as three-hundred-and-fifty elite Ankadian troops, also in heavy armor, twenty vakallarn heavy cavalry, two Zdar-class heavy tanks, four Maktel-class anthromechs and two Rathak-class climber mechs.
Of all of those, it was the cavalry that concerned Jen most. The Zdar tanks would be no match for her Audax mechs inside the caves, as the spider mechs would quickly get above them and attack the tanks’ weak top armor. The squatty two-legged Maktel walkers could bring some serious firepower, but her own Triceratops tank could punch right through the anthromechs’ front armor, and she had two more Triceratops coming in with the other teams for almost even odds. The six-legged Rathak climber mechs had actually served as the inspiration for the ESU Audax mechs and were equivalent, but they would be heavily outnumbered by nine Audaxes as soon as the Ankadian Zdars and Maktels were cleared out.
That left the vakallarn cavalry, who didn’t really have a counter and excelled at being fast and flexible.
Forty years back, before the first Ankadian invasion, ESU military commanders would have found the idea of live horse cavalry on the battlefield an absurd joke. According to Shira, her many-times-great grandsire Emperor Dellan Nakanolag had thought the same thing fifty years before that, during the first Ankadian ground conflict with the Targani.
The Targani had changed the minds of the Ankadians then, and the Ankadians had in turn changed the minds of the ESU later.
Vakallarn, an Ancadian term adapted from the Targani vaxathan, were a concept originally developed by the tribal and very warlike Targani, who had loved fighting on horseback far too much to abandon their steeds to the stables when mechanized weapons came around. In their case, unlike on Earth, certain plants had allowed for a lightweight form of ballistic armor that eliminated many of the vulnerabilities of horses and men to low-tech bullets. A prevalence of rocky and mountainous terrain on most of their homeworld, as well as a large number of sandy deserts, had also made wheeled vehicles with moving parts less convenient for much warfare.
By the time the Targani gained the technology to put self-powered armor on something as small as a man, they had still had a large amount of horse cavalry in use. Figuring that if they could armor a man they could armor a horse, they had put self-powered armor on both.
Centuries down the line, the Vaxathan horses had become like the Ankadian Bergresh hounds: precision-bred, cybernetically enhanced, frighteningly intelligent battle companions. Their armor had also advanced, becoming a mobile power source for a rider’s energy weapons as well as a carrier for anti-missile lasers, stronger plasma shields and, by the time the Ankadians fielded their own versions, a small forward-facing gravity deflection projector like the kind the ESU typically mounted on four-wheeled light tactical vehicles.
In practice, the rider told the horse where to go, then focused on shooting. The horse was left free to figure out how to get to the destination in the safest way possible. Safe included avoiding enemy fire, a task made easier by genetically enhanced intelligence and reflexes and the vastly improved senses and threat detection granted by the armor.
In simple terms, they tended to dodge.
Combined with their extra protections, this made them absurdly hard to kill in relation to their size.
Twenty vakallarn could run through her force in an instant, leaving confusion and heavy explosives behind. Or they could stand off and snipe, relying on cover and their deflection projectors to keep them safe. Or they could wait until her force was inside, then flank them, taking out her tank and catching her soldiers in 360 degree fire.
She could not allow that to happen.
“Papa , donne-moi s’il vous plaît sagesse, s’il vous plaît me donner la réponse . S’il vous plaît garder en sécurité mes soldats.“
She shouldered her rail-rifle as they approached the first intersection and motioned for the column to stop.
“Hannes, spy it.”
Hannes launched a quartet of coinsized spy drones, large enough to carry useful sensors, small enough to be almost undetectable, and sent them to scout the tunnels. Jen watched the sensor feed as he divided them into pairs and dodged one pair down each tunnel with one drone well in the lead on each team.
An electromagnetic pulse disabled the exposed circuits in the drones and the feed vanished.
“Ambush,” Hannes announced.
“Expected,” Jen said.
She prayed for wisdom again and studied the map.
“TriTee, on my mark, two cans sparkle per tunnel, wait three, then alternate four cans fusion. Follow with one smoke each tunnel. Confirm,” she ordered.
“Four sparkle, four fusion, two smoke, fire on your mark,” the tank commander replied.
“Rapier, split for charge. Squad’s one and two, follow left, squads three and four, follow right. Standard intersection cross. Audaxes one and two, follow after, rock anything still moving.”
Jen’s heart started beating faster as Rapier team split to cover either wall and the indicated squads moved up behind them.
Four soft whuffs sounded in the tunnel as the big tank launched four 100 millimeter cans into the cross tunnels from one of its smaller guns. The cans struck the back walls and exploded into clouds of laser dispersing metal powder.
Three seconds later, four more whuffs from the same gun sent four containment canisters filled with fusing deuterium. As the canisters reached the intersection tiny charges blew them sideways down the tunnels.
Thunder and solar fire shot out of the side tunnels, shaking the complex and bringing dust down from the ceiling.
Two more cans went in, bouncing off the red hot back walls, and filled the side tunnels with hot, metallic smoke.
“Go! Go! Go!”
Jennifer charged, powering forward with legs and Tzu-thrusters. Sonar sang out from her armor as she reached the left tunnel and her opponents flashed into view.
They looked like holes to her sound-mapped vision.
A jump and a strong pulse from her main Tzus took her five meters up into the smoke, away from their line of fire.
She caught the wall with the smart soles on her boots, gyros supporting her upper body, and ran sideways just under the roof.
She locked onto one hole. Five missiles snapped out.
Explosions rippled around the hole and it turned into a suit of armor.
Jen put two thundercracks through the thin spot just under his breastplate.
She locked onto the next hole.
Holes. Two close together.
Ten missiles. Four thundercracks.
Her shield sizzled and flashed with incoming fire. Ankadian missiles shattered from her protective lasers.
Two made it through. The explosions tore her shield apart.
She thrust to the floor, absorbed the punishing stop, rolled sideways into prone and cancelled her sonar.
She found the launcher and opened up with her laser, hissing violet flashes ripping plasma off his glowing shield.
Jen locked onto his midsection through the dwindling shield and fired her rail rifle until the heatsinks wrapping the barrel glowed red.
More shots ripped the air above her. Missiles and lasers too. Power-armored stellars charged past to either side.
Rapier and the other squads cleaned up quickly. Twenty Ankadians total. Three losses from her force. She recorded the ones she had killed and got her troops moving again.
Two more ambushes tried to stop them. Forty-one more Ankadians, six more soldiers from her force.
Alpha team reached the tunnels just outside the main bay and waited for beta and gamma to confirm ready. A supply truck from the surface brought more ammunition in the interim.
As soon as checks were done, Jen knelt at the head of the column and prayed with all that she had, in the moment of quiet feeling the crushing exhaustion of all that had already been lost. It had been the same the previous times she held command in a battle.
So much death.
The lives of her people slipping through her fingers.
And the only way to save them to somehow kill someone else’s people faster.
“Papa, s’il vous plaît faire ArKalak reddition. S’il vous plaît le convaincre d’abandonner. S’il vous plaît. S’il vous plaît épargner la vie de ses hommes. S’il vous plaît épargner la vie de la mine. S’il vous plaît. Je ne comprends pas pourquoi ils doivent mourir. S’il vous plaît, Papa, s’il vous plaît …”
The confirmation pulse came in for beta team. Then gamma.
It was time.
Jen stood, feeling far too weak for what was to come.
“Portez-moi, Seigneur,” she whispered.
Kate tapped her on the shoulder.
“They’re all ready,” Kate said on a private channel. She held up a missile pack. “And you forgot yourself.”
“Merci.” Jen took it and refilled her launcher, then switched to the company channel.
“It’s time to finish this, stellars. I’m going to give ArKalak one chance to surrender, then we’re going in.”
“Squads one through four, hold back at the bay entrance and make sure we don’t get flanked. All other squads, scatter to cover as you enter then advance and clear. Odd teams left, even teams right. Coordinate with beta and gamma as soon as the tac network comes up. Audaxes one and two, take out the tanks, then the walkers, then support infantry. TriTee, focus on the walkers. When they go down, shift to fire support and start shelling any concentrations of infantry.”
“Rapier, we’re going straight for ArKalak. As soon as we have him in hand, this battle ends and no one else dies. Audax three, you’re with us. Follow up top and knock down anything that tries to stop us. Confirmed?”
All the squad leaders and vehicle commanders confirmed their orders.
“Tres bien. Star Corps!”
Jen looked down the tunnel and threw a comm relay out on the ground twenty meters further in.
“Stellars, if any of you pray, then I want you to start praying right now that this man listens to reason. Don’t stop until I’m done talking to him. It may be that we get to go home with no more shots fired.”
She activated the comm relay and routed a universal parley request through it.
After several pings the Ankadians picked up.
“This is Rakash Durr Takarag ArKalak,” came a baritone voice punctuated with the heavy consonants of a native doga speaker. “You are the commander?”
“This is Lieutenant-Major Guenièvre Jantola Kozietulski. I am the commander.”
There was a pause.
“Lieutenant-Major Kozietulski. This is an honor. I thought you were on the other side of ESU territory.”
“We have fast ships.”
“You are calling for terms?”
“I am calling for surrender. You give me that, and you and all your people go home with all your gear. No reparations, no prisoners, no ransoms. Just go home.”
“That is a tempting offer…”
“I don’t tempt. Your other option is that we break you and send you home in pieces. You do not win this.”
“I think I have more options than you believe.”
“The only other options you have gain you nothing and cost many lives. Please, as God lives and his judgement comes, surrender now.”
“Begging. Even from you, Jantola.”
“I beg for the lives of your men, Rakash Durr var Ancadarul. Remember your oaths.”
“An unbeliever, calling me to honor Kai. How strange.”
Jen grimaced. He wasn’t going to give in and he thought he had an escape.
She pulled a vibration sensor out of a utility pouch and stuck the palm-high tripod to the cave floor. One reading stood out immediately.
She cut the call to ArKalak and switched back to the company channel.
“He’s drilling. There must be another tunnel he thinks he can reach. We go in now.”
Jen threw everything on God again and let go.
Then she signalled all teams for entry.
Sparkle, fusion and smoke.
A huge swarm of mini-drones spying faster than the enemy could shoot them all down.
Jen spotted her first target before she even reached the entrance to the main bay and sent missiles ahead to destroy his shield.
She dropped the man with a shot to the chest as she crossed the threshold.
Picked out the next.
Tore him apart too before she left the smoke.
Slid into a crouch behind a portable barrier one of her targets had been using.
Rapier came up behind her, ripping apart soldiers almost as fast. Squads of stellars darted out of the smoke to either side, firing as they moved.
A bolt of lightning split the air and shook the whole bay as the Triceratops fired its main gun, a nova shard.
A Maktel walker exploded.
The Zdars replied with their own nova shards.
Missiles rained down on them from the Audaxes on the ceiling.
The rest of Jen’s forces poured in from the other two tunnels.
Jen searched the tactical net as it connected the companies. Somewhere ArKalak was digging his way to escape.
“Squad beta four, this is Diva. Drop vibration sensors where you are.”
Fresh vibration sensors came online near the squad from beta team.
Jen combined them with her first sensor and triangulated.
“Digger is in the warehouse. Let’s move, Rapier.”
She scanned the bay, plotting a path through the chaos.
The Zdars were both dead.
Her Triceratops wasn’t.
“TriTee one, you are now Rapier’s fire support. I’m connecting you to our designators. Find a high spot and cut us a path.”
The big tank rolled up onto one of the dead Zdars and aimed over her head.
“Ready for fire support, Sir.”
Jen picked her course and moved, low and fast, pop-and-drop from cover to cover.
Most of the Ankadians were too busy to care.
Two that weren’t barred her way.
The Triceratops erased one.
Kate got the other.
Jen kept moving.
They made the warehouse with minimal interference, most of that thanks to the tank vaporizing anyone who looked their way.
The warehouse had a lower roof than the main bay, with more of the walls looking cut than natural. The floor had been flat, but now had a six meter circular hole diving into it at a shallow angle.
Ten heavily armed guards ringed the hole.
They scattered as the tank vaporized one of them.
Jen picked off another who had lost his shield standing close to the first.
Rapier came into the warehouse firing, taking cover behind crates and spare equipment. Lasers and hypervelocity rounds quickly shredded everything that wasn’t armored.
One by one, the remaining guards fell.
Michel fell with them. Jen saw his name go red in her squad list.
No. No time for worry or sorrow.
“Keep moving. We have to take the tunnel! TriTee one, close up for shelling.”
TriTee one, still outside the warehouse, exploded.
Audax three dropped down from the ceiling instead.
“I still have one full mag of grenades and five fusion missiles, Sir.”
“Then clear that tunnel,” Jen said. “Wide dispersal. I need ArKalak alive to call off this mess.”
The spider walker scuttled up to the tunnel entrance.
A violet storm of heavy lasers melted its front.
“Get down!” Jennifer shouted.
The Audax stumbled back.
Jennifer hit the deck and pushed shields into emergency mode.
One of the Audax’s fusion missiles lost containment.
The warehouse went white.
Then faded to burning.
Jen looked up. Her armor was hot but intact.
Two squads of vakallarn cavalry charged out of the tunnel.
She had no shield. There was no cover.
Smoke and sparkle grenades clattered against the ground in front of her and went off.
She snatched a throw-mine and skidded it across the floor.
From the sound, others in Rapier did the same.
One of the Vakallarn tripped a mine and lost his mount. He tumbled forward and came up shooting.
The others bypassed the mines and Rapier team, leaving the warehouse to turn around.
Jen came up to her knees and opened fire on the downed cavalryman with laser, missiles and a heavy rail pistol. As soon as he fell she designated the remaining vakallarn as priority targets on the tac net.
A storm of fire met the cavalry in the main bay, distracting them from Rapier.
Jen checked her squad. Two more were down. Hannes and Tomàs.
“Porte moi, papa. Porte moi.”
She had to get up.
Jen retrieved her rifle and stood. A moment’s search found two mostly intact squads nearby.
“Squads gamma four and gamma five, follow me. We have a warlord to catch. Let’s keep moving Rapier.”
Jen put up her rifle and pulled out her 30mm multi-launcher. She advanced toward the tunnel, fired smoke and sparkle down it, then crawled to the edge and waited for Rapier and the other squads to join her.
“Set your missiles to seek, fire all but five on my mark.”
A swarm of missiles took off down the tunnel. Rapier squad and the other stellars followed at a run, guns blazing.
There was one salvo in return. Several fell.
Then their missiles found the Ankadians.
The explosions lit them up and the stellars started firing accurately.
In a moment Jennifer was in the midst of them.
She lashed out, knocking ArKalak’s personal guards around as she looked for him.
There. Blue and green heavy armor with silver scrollwork.
She knocked another guard out of her way and launched herself at ArKalak.
He drew a huge sonic longsword, intricate and deadly as Jennifer’s dagger.
She parried with her blade, caught him around the middle, and thrust-slammed him into the ceiling.
Powered him into the ground.
ArKalak’s sword went flying.
Jen slid her dagger, forty-six centimeters of singing carbon, into the gap between his helmet and breastplate.
“Surrender!” Jen shouted on loudspeaker.
There was a long moment in which the fighting continued and Jen felt the death toll rising.
Then ArKalak spoke.
“This is Rakash Durr ArKalak,” the rough baritone said on a general broadcast. “Cease fire and lay down your weapons. I am defeated.”
“This is Major Kozietulski. All stellars cease fire and begin taking prisoners. We have victory.”
Everything went very quiet. Jen heard cheers, but it was nothing compared to the gunfire of a moment before.
Slowly she withdrew her blade and resheathed it, then stood up.
After a moment of searching she found ArKalak’s sword.
She picked it up. Nearly a meter of etched iridium told the victories and glories of two thousand years of ArKalak warlords.
The War Sword of the ArKalak Family.
She broke it over her knee.
(Continue to Chapter 3)